Low-hanging fruit: the history

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Someone asked me recently about (sources for exploring) the history of idioms like "low-hanging fruit" in business jargon. Unable to suggest any truly suitable data sources, I did a few of the obvious things.

There's Google Books Ngrams, which verifies a few decades of increased use:

There's the OED's entry, glossed as "n. figurative the most readily accomplished tasks, measures, or goals; those things that most easily bring a profit or other successful result", with citations from 1968 verifying that (figurative) uses are (seen by the OED as) mostly in business (or business-adjacent) contexts:

[1968 P. J. Kavanaugh in Guardian 12 July 6/3 His rare images are picked aptly, easily, like low-hanging fruit.]
1972 Proc. Manufacturing Productivity Conf. (Soc. Manufacturing Engineers) 59 We have plucked the low hanging fruit, so to speak, and have seized upon the somewhat obvious applications for keeping records and the like.
1981 Fortune 29 July 54/3 Intel started with what Nevin calls ‘the low-hanging fruit’, departments with routine activities, such as accounts-payable and personnel records, that are relatively easy to streamline and that provide rapid proof of the program's effectiveness.
1995 Acad. of Managem. Rev. 20 993 In the early stages of pollution prevention, there is a great deal of ‘low-hanging fruit’—easy and inexpensive behavioral and material changes that result in large emission reductions relative to costs.
2003 New Scientist 11 Jan. 48/1 It is simply more difficult to produce new drugs. All the low-hanging fruit has been picked and a treatment found for many of the simple illnesses.
2012 Independent 15 Oct. 49/1 Foreign expats have always been a high-yielding target for HMRC, and with the organisation trying to boost its revenue, it's not surprising that they're targeting low-hanging fruit.

There's newspapers.com, which shows that literal uses of the phrase have always been around, e.g.

…and that complaints about over-use in business are not new, e.g. this from the Cincinnati Enquirer 6/3/2012.

A Google Scholar search shows that scientists are apparently as prone to using this metaphor as business people are ("About 40,600 results"):

And a bit of further poking around antedates the OED's citations to 1909, in Sara Agnes Rice Pryor's novel My Day: Reminiscences of a Long Life:

So it seems that the metaphor has always been available, and has probably been rediscovered many times over the years, before becoming meme-ified at some point in the 1980s.



12 Comments »

  1. bks said,

    August 3, 2022 @ 7:09 am

    Now do the execrable business idiom, "open the kimono."

  2. Karen said,

    August 3, 2022 @ 9:49 am

    When I was in primary school, my mother tried to motivate me to do homework by starting on the easiest questions first, what she called "el mango bajito" (the low-hanging mango, in Spanish). I had no idea it was an idiom in English, nor that it was associated with business.

    I wouldn't be surprised if this was a common idiom around the world. If you have a fruit tree, the difference between picking fruit that are within arm's reach and ones you have to climb up for/use tools for is obvious.

  3. Haamu said,

    August 3, 2022 @ 12:47 pm

    It's interesting to consider this alongside another jargony expression for a related concept: quick wins. As in: "This software implementation is going to be a three-year project, so in Phase One we're going to need to go for some quick wins to ensure continued funding."

    The ngram for the two phrases shows them launching off the baseline nearly simultaneously in the 1990s, which raises the question of what the preferred jargon for this was before then.

    [(myl) Adding "easy pickings" to the plot suggests an acceleration of interest in such things during the past few decades — with "long-term gains" going in the other direction...]

  4. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    August 3, 2022 @ 3:59 pm

    @myl: suggests an acceleration of interest in such things Or maybe an increase in the metaphoricity of business English.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    August 3, 2022 @ 4:43 pm

    Hmmm … "low-hanging fruit" = tactics, "long-term gains" = strategy ?

  6. AntC said,

    August 3, 2022 @ 5:04 pm

    @PhilipT "low-hanging fruit" = tactics, "long-term gains" = strategy ?

    I think you're giving the sort of business people who come up with this tripe too much credence.

    "low-hanging fruit"/"quick wins" often means closing down or outsourcing (apparently) unprofitable parts of the business — with short-term gain to the bottom line. (For example saving £350m per week in contributions — alleged.)

    The executives/politicians will have moved on/got kicked out of office before the long-term effects are visible. The outsourcing contract/selling and leasing back assets will turn out to have increasing costs as years go on. Postponing maintenance will lead to more (and more expensive) equipment breakdowns. There is no strategy.

  7. Viseguy said,

    August 3, 2022 @ 5:53 pm

    “The ergonomics of picking apples have completely changed. It really no longer makes sense to go for the low-hanging fruit. The phrase is irrelevant.”

    https://priceonomics.com/should-you-literally-pick-the-low-hanging-fruit/

  8. ohwilleke said,

    August 3, 2022 @ 6:27 pm

    To be honest, I am very surprised that the Google Books Ngrams suggests a date so recent for the metaphor coming into wide use. It is one of those overused expressions that I could swear has been around and in wide use since Shakespeare's day, but apparently I'm wrong.

  9. David Deden said,

    August 4, 2022 @ 1:02 am

    Better access to the low-hanging fruit of the ancient tropical rainforest is what gave advantage to hominoids (apes) over monkeys. Monkeys scramble over branches quadrupedally, they can't see or grasp beneath easily, apes walk bipedally on branches while hand-grasping above, or swing beneath branches bimanually while foot-grasping below, their fruit plucking range is far greater than monkeys, gaining selective advantage with longer and longer arms.

  10. Cervantes said,

    August 4, 2022 @ 7:05 am

    This is so obvious I expect people have been saying something like it since the dawn of language.

  11. Francois Lang said,

    August 4, 2022 @ 8:26 am

    The mention by bks of "open the kimono" (yuck!) prompted me to Google the phrase, and I found this NYT article

    https://www.nytimes.com/1998/08/13/technology/braindump-on-the-blue-badge-a-guide-to-microspeak.html

    about Microsoft jargon, which, of course, includes the kimono thing.

  12. Michael Watts said,

    August 6, 2022 @ 4:33 am

    When I was in primary school, my mother tried to motivate me to do homework by starting on the easiest questions first, what she called "el mango bajito" (the low-hanging mango, in Spanish). I had no idea it was an idiom in English, nor that it was associated with business.

    I'd say you were half right. As an American English monoglot, I also had no idea that the expression "low-hanging fruit" was notionally associated with business. In fact, I'm quite sure that it isn't, because I hear it used in non-business contexts all the time.

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